Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Unicorn shares with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) an insistence on the ultimate unknowability of another human being and the futility of a search for absolute values in a contingent world, but Murdoch carries this level of exploration even further than did Conrad. First, she demonstrates the importance and redemptive value of human relationships and how an individual’s personal choices—or lack of them—can affect others. More specifically, the novel is a parable of the dangers of failing to participate in shared, objective reality, of relying on the imagination too much by constructing personal myths. Fantasy, in this work, is a distorting, destructive force which leads to tragedy.

In this way, The Unicorn can be seen an exploration of the ideas of French philosopher Simone Weil, who argued that suffering leads to excessive self-involvement and violence. In Hannah, Murdoch shows the reader that suffering can also disguise itself as purification but that the end is the same. In the novel, this idea is given voice by Max as the Greek notion of At, a concept which is also central to Weil’s thinking. Max suggests that suffering is always transferred from one victim to another until it reaches a truly good person who refuses to pass it on. Murdoch has clearly constructed such a chain of interdependent tragedies in this novel, and the person perceived by all in their individual ways to be that good person, Hannah, is a false unicorn. If such a character exists, Marian may be the one, but Murdoch is characteristically vague in this suggestion.

Murdoch is also exploring the connection between sexual servitude and religious devotion in a Freudian vein here. Her gothic framework allows her to examine a domestic situation in terms of traditional class structure, but one which is also founded on perceptions of what is “good” and “pure” and is actually based in a hierarchy of erotic dominance and symbiosis. The class structure is false, for sexual and spiritual needs bind these characters in their personal and domestic relationships. Each suffers subjectively in an individual prison of desire and longing.